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Courtroom


A Battle Lost


By Jeff Kisseloff

ALGER HISS AND THE BATTLE FOR HISTORY. By Susan Jacoby. Yale University Press, New Haven. 244 pps. $24.00

On November 17, 1948, Whittaker Chambers led congressional investigators to the "soon-to-be-famous pumpkin-encased microfilm, containing copies of classified State Department documents, on his Maryland farm."

So writes Susan Jacoby -- erroneously -- in her new book, "Alger Hiss and the Battle for History." The book is published by the prestigious Yale University Press as part of its "Icons of America" series, whose purpose is to allow scholars to explore a variety of topics on American history. The topics so far range from "Gone With the Wind" to a history of The Hamburger.

The latter could by comparison point up the basic problem with Jacoby's effort -- like a 99-cent burger, there is an obvious lack of meat, even for those whose who agree with Jacoby's premise that Hiss was guilty as charged. As probably the most important criminal trial in terms of its political impact in the 20th century, there is a vital need to place the Hiss case in its proper context. But Jacoby, the author of a previously well-reviewed volume on the McCarthy era, "The Age of Unreason," seems to have taken a busman's holiday with her latest effort, in which, among other problems, she repeatedly stumbles over crucial facts [1] of the case. This is not surprising, given that early on she states not without some pride that she has little knowledge of what she calls the "minutiae" of the evidence, and even less interest in it. What is surprising is that in her view, such laziness is a virtue. "Poring over documents [is] so endless (and often so dull) that it would be impossible for anyone but a Cold War junkie to read them without going blind or mad."

That utterance gives us Jacoby in a nutshell: a facile comment papering over an essential laziness. As this writer, who has spent many years delving into the case (without losing his sanity) can attest, the FBI documents are actually a fascinating window into government operations during the period, while the defense files provide an equally intriguing view into how Hiss and his lawyers struggled monumentally to construct a counterattack against Whittaker Chambers' allegations. Work -- yes, dull -- no. Even when the documents do make for less than exciting reading, however, that doesn't excuse anyone who purports to have an informed opinion of the case from delving into the "minutiae" of the case, which Jacoby finds just so distasteful, like having a dinner guest who slurps his soup.

To Jacoby, however, not having to worry about the facts, frees her to deal with the wider implications of the case. But the reality is that not doing the basic spadework means she must rely on the questionable work of Allen Weinstein, John Earl Haynes (whose name she misspells), Harvey Klehr, G. Edward White and Ann Coulter -- all of whom are on record as believing Hiss guilty. By refusing to do the research, any conclusions she reaches about the "Battle for History" are unearned.

Considering her primary sources, it is also no shock that Jacoby finds the evidence against Hiss to be "very persuasive" if not "conclusive." If that opinion had been the result of due diligence on her part, it might have carried more weight, but in the absence of any original research it resembles a house built without a foundation. Such shortcuts can cause the building to collapse into itself with only the slightest poking. That's the case here. On the other hand, the lack of finality she feels regarding the verdict raises an interesting point: if that chorus of anti-Hiss voices fails to totally convince her, perhaps there is more to the arguments of Hiss's innocence than she is willing to acknowledge.

But Jacoby doesn't just fail to ask the right questions. She also goes out of her way to denigrate Hiss, describing him at different points in the manuscript as "a clever young man on the make," a "people-pleaser," a "charmer," and a person who spent the 1920s "grooming himself and being groomed for success." She even questions why his case continues to be worthy of attention since he wasn't executed like the Rosenbergs. Such comments don't enhance her credibility as a scholar, not only because they are unnecessarily nasty, but because they aren't remotely accurate in capturing the essence of Hiss's life or personality. The irony here is that even Whittaker Chambers, in one of his few accurate descriptions of Hiss, called him a person of innate sweetness.

But Jacoby doesn't reserve her snide comments for Hiss. All of his defenders are on the receiving end of Jacoby's missiles, including Hiss's stepson, Timothy Hobson. In her introduction, she mentions being in the audience at a conference on the Hiss case held at New York University in April 2007. Speaking out in public for the first time, Hobson, a retired surgeon, gave an emotional speech. He said he knew his stepfather was innocent because he was living in the Hiss's tiny 30th Street house in Georgetown when Chambers said he was coming by there regularly, and Chambers wasn't.

Jacoby was not only unmoved but also incredulous, calling Hobson's speech "a pathetic spectacle of an old man trying to earn a stepfather's love from beyond the grave."

Since Jacoby never bothered to read through the defense files, she doesn't know that Hobson told essentially the same story to the defense and the FBI in 1949. He then repeated it under a truth serum in the early 1960s. When I asked Hobson about why anyone shouldn't think he was merely trying to protect the reputation of his mother and stepfather, he responded quickly that he didn't love them enough to lie for them. [2]

There is something else Jacoby might have learned had she bothered to read the record. During the time Chambers claimed to be visiting the Hisses and returning the government files Hiss had given him, Hobson was laid up in bed with a badly mangled leg as a result of a bicycle accident. It was a detail that anyone who knew the family well would have recalled, but Chambers never said a word about it when recounting the story of his supposed close friendship with the Hisses during that time.

Here is just a sampling of other factual mistakes in the manuscript that are the result of poor or no scholarship:

* Jacoby writes that Alger Hiss was the only one of the alleged former members of the underground cell described by Chambers to respond to his charges before HUAC. She is wrong. Donald Hiss also testified. Even the FBI declared there was no basis for Chambers' allegations against Donald Hiss. This has implications for the Venona [3] releases on 1995, which Hiss's detractors said were the nail in the coffin for his claim of innocence. The key telex dated March 5, 1945 said the Soviet spy code-named "ALES," who the Bureau said was "probably" Alger Hiss, [4] worked with "a small group for the most part consisting of his relations." Eliminating Donald Hiss from the equation casts considerable doubt on the FBI's already tenuous identification. To her credit, Jacoby doesn't totally buy into claims that Venona's proves Hiss's guilt, although she accepts the arguments of its two most vocal proponents: John Earl Haynes and Harvey Klehr that Hiss had been a Soviet agent.

*Jacoby writes that Chambers first appeared before HUAC on August 2, 1948, it was August 3. She then compounds her error by saying Hiss appeared before HUAC three days later. It was two days.

* Jacoby writes that Hiss went to jail in 1950. He went in March 1951.

* Jacoby writes that Hiss denied knowing Chambers in his first appearance before HUAC. This lie is often repeated by Hiss's detractors, but saying it again and again doesn't make it any more true. The lie is rooted in then-Rep. Richard Nixon's statement that the crux of the case lie in whether Hiss knew Chambers. Nixon already knew that that was false, because the two had known each other, but he used this false issue to manipulate public opinion against Hiss.

Hiss denied knowing anyone "by the name" of Chambers. This is in part rooted in a question put to him by the FBI the year before when he was asked for the first time whether he knew anyone named Whittaker Chambers. Hiss said no, and he didn't. He did know a man named George Crosley, who turned out to be Chambers. Although Hiss's detractors don't usually care to mention it, even Chambers testified that Hiss never knew him by his real name. Still, when Hiss later testified that Crosley was Chambers, Nixon carefully orchestrated the response to make it seem as if Hiss were backtracking on his earlier testimony.

Jacoby contends that Hiss was being deliberately adroit in early testimony about Chambers. If he was, there were good reasons for it. First, Hiss was unsure at first whether Chambers was the man he had known in the 1930s as George Crosley, and he didn't want to misidentify someone before HUAC. Second, while Jacoby criticizes Hiss's use of qualifiers like "to be the best of my memory" he had no choice but to protect himself before a hostile committee that clearly had documentary information on matters that Hiss had to recall from the recesses of his memory. Hiss knew that any mistakes in his testimony could prompt a perjury charge from a committee that was fully aware of the political implications of the Hiss-Chambers controversy at a time when the GOP had its first real chance to reoccupy the White House in fifteen years.

Nor was there any indication that, as Jacoby says, Hiss had forgotten Crosley. He said he preferred not to identify Chambers from a photographing, and, this is the key: he testified in his first appearance that he was disappointed the committee hadn't arranged have Chambers/Crosley in the room during Hiss's testimony. That would have cleared up the issue on the spot, but it also would have left Richard Nixon and HUAC without an issue to exploit.

* Jacoby seems to be saying (doubtfully) that during Hiss's trials, the defense maintained that "the FBI, or Chambers with FBI assistance, manufactured a copy of the Hisses' Woodstock in an attempt to frame the defendant." Actually, this issue was never raised at trial. It the defense that offered the typewriter into evidence. While it was conceded it may have been the machine that typed the documents, the Hisses testified that they had gotten rid of it before the documents were typed. It also showed that a number of the original documents that appeared on the film known as the Pumpkin Papers never crossed Hiss's desk and therefore he could not have been their source. The charge of forgery by typewriter was not raised until after the trial by Hiss and was not gone into with any substance until Hiss's motion for a new trial was filed, in 1952. Jacoby doesn't mention the motion or the supporting affidavits from several technical experts. She simply chooses to denigrate the theory, even though it is now well known that the FBI had the capability of forging documents and had done so with some success.

* Jacoby claims Chambers withheld information before HUAC that he had been involved in espionage along with Hiss in the 1930s, because the statute of limitations had not yet run out. This is wrong. The statute of limitations for perjury in 1948 was three years.

* Jacoby writes, "The FBI and State Department files, which Hiss had always maintained would show that the government had suppressed exculpatory evidence did no such thing." This is incorrect. The FBI documents produced by Hiss and incorporated in his coram nobis petition (1978) revealed that the prosecution withheld considerable exculpatory evidence. That more information damaging to the government's case wasn't revealed was not because such evidence didn't exist, but because the FBI continued to withhold it -- and still does. This was demonstrated in 2006 when the FBI released to this writer the file of Hede Massing, a key witness at the second Hiss trial who testified in support of Chambers's contention that Hiss had been a member of the Communist underground. According to the newly released documents, however, Massing had been a longtime confidential informant of the FBI who hadn't said a word about Hiss until it was apparent that she could make some money selling a story about the case and who was also testifying under the threat of deportation. Had this been known in the 1970s, Hiss's coram nobis effort might have had a more successful conclusion.

Jacoby goes on to say about Weinstein's research that "equally important were interviews" that Weinstein conducted "with old associates of Chambers (including [J.] Peters, who was unquestionably a Soviet agent). Whether J. Peters was actually an agent is still questionable, but there's no question that Peters said nothing to Weinstein that confirmed Chambers's story about Hiss. In fact, the only time J. Peters has gone on record was in an autobiography he wrote in the 1990s. In it, contrary to Chambers' allegations, Peters wrote that he had never met Alger Hiss.

* She writes that Chambers told Assistant Secretary of State Adolf A. Berle in 1939 that Hiss was a member of the Communist Party. Berle stated on several occasions, including before HUAC and to the FBI, that Chambers told him no such thing. What Berle said was that Chambers told him rather vague stories (a comment that would be echoed by the FBI about Chambers in 1942), to the effect that the Hisses were targets for recruitment by the Party. In fact, no proof has ever surfaced that Hiss was a member of the Communist Party or that he ever moved beyond New Deal liberalism. Jacoby also repeats the canard spread by, of all people, Ann Coulter, that Berle (a vigilant anti-communist) never followed up on Chambers' vague story, as if he was somehow being negligent. The fact is, though, he did follow up, repeating what Chambers had told him, for what it was worth, to President Roosevelt's associate Marvin McIntyre.

Those are just a sampling of the facts Jacoby gets wrong. Then there's the innuendo, piled on over and over like extra whipped cream on pudding, in which she clearly chooses to present any allegation or comment about Alger Hiss or his defenders in a negative light. This echoes the same techniques employed by Weinstein in "Perjury," which the award-winning biographer Matthew Josephson recognized this back in 1977, when he wrote to this author, "…If Chambers failed to remember something going back 13 years, it was an "inconvenience" for the prosecution. If Hiss showed a memory lapse about minor matters 13 years back, then he had been 'lying' for thirty years"!…Weinstein has no sense of values as a biographer or historian to lead him through all this chaotic mass of stuff, but adopts the standards of HUAC, the FBI, Nixon, even."

In Jacoby's work, it begins with her introduction, where she states matter-of-factly, without citing any facts that the aforementioned "Alger Hiss & History" conference at NYU was composed of "several hundred people who continue to believe that Hiss was framed by a right-wing conspiracy." A check of the speakers indicates that they included, among others, Timothy Naftali, G. Edward White and David Oshinksy, all of whom are on record as saying Hiss was guilty. We're assuming that she, nor anyone else in attendance polled the audience. This author, who also spoke at the conference, noticed plenty of warm applause for the speakers who defended the prosecution's case.

Her characterization of the audience also raises the issue of her portrayal of those who believe in Hiss's innocence, attributing to them an almost cult-like quality. In her view, "Hiss's defenders" or "Hiss's supporters" are invariably a knee-jerk, sentimental group, extremely small in number [5], who refuse to acknowledge the obvious truth. That there could still be widespread skepticism regarding a verdict based on questionable evidence doesn't appear to be a consideration for her.

Hiss's champion who comes under the most criticism is the late John Lowenthal. In 1991, Richard Nixon, and in 1992 Lowenthal (on behalf of the 88-year-old Hiss), sent independently of each other requests to General Dmitiri A. Volkogonov, who was then President Yeltsin's military adviser and overseer of all the Soviet intelligence archives, requesting Soviet files on the Hiss case. After researching the files, Volkogonov responded with a brief letter, saying that the files contained no evidence that Hiss was a spy. Hiss, as was to be expected, was gratified by the response, while Hiss's longtime detractors were outraged. The latter insisted that Volkogonov couldn't have examined all the evidence, and they got some comfort when a few days later Volkgonov appeared to back off from his own letter by saying that he was pressured into making his comments by Lowenthal and that he, essentially, was just trying to be kind to an old man nearing the end of his life.

Jacoby recounts this story, but parses Lowenthal's original note to find more evidence of Hiss's wily behavior. She says the request that he search for evidence that Hiss was "never a paid, contracted agent for the Soviet Union" was a "carefully constructed phrase" because no one had ever alleged that Hiss had been paid he was an unpaid agent, they said, who actions were strictly out of loyalty to the Soviet Union.

Actually, the original letter written in August 1992 by Hiss, asks that Lowenthal be allowed to examine all the Soviet files "about me, Whittaker Chambers, and the Hiss case." That covers pretty much everything. Volkogonov was unqualified in his response, writing on October 14, 1992, that on the basis of all the information available, "Alger Hiss was never an agent of the intelligent services of the Soviet Union." The word "paid" does not appear once in his letter.

Volkgonov's subsequent "retraction," as Jacoby calls it, was published on December 17 in The New York Times. Here, he is quoted by Serge Schemann as saying that, "I only looked through what the K.G.B. had. All I said was that I saw no evidence." He then appeared to again place the blame on Lowenthal, saying, " His attorney, Lowenthal, pushed me hard to say things of which I was not fully convinced."

There is evidence that Volkgonov's retraction was a result of considerable political pressure, but this is a matter for another story. Of more direct concern are transcripts of two interviews Lowenthal had with Volkgonov. Neither reveals any effort by Lowenthal to put words in Volkogonov's mouth . Moreover, the second interview, conducted on November 11 directly contradicts Jacoby's allegation. In that interview, Volkogonov begins by confirming the substance of his note, "that Alger Hiss has never been a paid agent for the Soviet Union."

So if he was falling into a trap set by the wily Hiss and Lowenthal, why was Lowenthal's first question to Volkgonov, "And was he ever an unpaid agent?"

Volkogonov response was unequivocal, "According to the Soviet files he was never a paid or unpaid agent."

So much for Jacoby's charge.

Jacoby also cites an alleged comment by Volkogonov that he only went through KGB files, claiming Chambers had worked only for the GRU and not the KGB. This, too, is false. Chambers claimed that both he and Hiss did espionage on behalf of the KGB when Hiss was working for the Nye Committee in 1935. And in his interview with Lowenthal in November, Volkgonov was asked directly, "Did you examine also the military intelligence files?"

Volkogonov's response was "Yes, I also searched through GRU files and nothing pertinent was found."

The Volkgonov affair made headlines across the country. This bothers Jacoby who wonders why Hiss became such a cause celebre since he wasn't executed like the Rosenbergs, but instead lived the rest of his life in "relatively comfortable circumstances," as if that fact, if true, renders him unworthy of sympathy or concern (She does acknowledge the damage done when a person's civil liberties are lost. She just doesn't feel it happened to Alger Hiss). While it's true that Hiss wasn't sent to the electric chair or even banished to a remote island like Dreyfuss was, he was forced out of a promising career, had to spend four years of his life in prison, and then had to scramble to make a living as a stationery salesman. Mostly, though, he became a cause celebre, because a decent man was seen as the victim of a ghastly miscarriage of justice that became the watershed case for discrediting liberalism over the past sixty years.

It also seems to bother her that Hiss made a living during the Depression, writing that Hiss "is an iconic figure for another, frequently overlook reason: he was one of a minority of Americans who prospered during the Depression." Perhaps the reason why that is overlooked is that it makes no sense. Having known Hiss for many years, I can't remember a single person approaching him to say the reason they admired him was because he was able to put bread on the table during the 1930s.

Then, in a strange, contradictory aside, she says she doesn't believe Hiss's story about making small loans to Chambers, because why would someone make loans during such hard times? But if Hiss was as prosperous as she says, that question would be moot.

The fact is, though, the word "prospered" to describe Hiss is not especially accurate. Hiss was not able to purchase his own home until 1943. His stepson attended a private school, but the bill was paid by the boy's father [6]

This theme -- that Hiss did not suffer enough either before or after Chambers' charges -- pops again in comments about Hiss's popularity on the lecture circuit. This is both petty and ill-informed. Hiss turned over every nickel from those engagements to the National Emergency Civil Liberties Committee to pay his legal expenses. The primary purpose of those engagements wasn't to plead his own case. When asked to speak on campus, Hiss always provided a lists of topics, all of them relating to the New Deal and foreign policy. Of course he was asked about the case, and he never shied away from answering. Hiss also routinely spent two or three days at each college, sleeping in a dorm room and eating with the students. No wonder he was a popular visitor.

It is amazing to see how much about Hiss she gets wrong, mistakes that could have been rectified had she picked up the phone. For example, she recites Chambers' story that Hiss had no use for Shakespeare, quoting him as saying, "I just don't like Shakespeare -- platitudes in blank verse." She then goes on to say "It will be objected that it is unfair to Hiss to allow Chambers to define him." [7] So then, in an attempt to prove Tony Hiss wrong, she culls a few samples from Hiss's letters from prison to demonstrate that Chambers was most likely accurate in his description. But why didn't she just ask Tim Hobson? Here's Hobson's email in response to my question about Jacoby's allegation:

"Blatantly false!  He and Prossy used to read Shakespeare aloud in the evenings!  It shows again how much (little) Chambers knew about the Hiss family."

And, by extension, Jacoby.

Her biases again become clear when she suggests that, following his graduation from Harvard Law School, Hiss took the job as Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes's secretary simply because it was a good career move. Hiss had no idea he was even up for the post until he received a personal handwritten note from Holmes informing him that he had been chosen. Everyone in the class knew this was the greatest honor that could be bestowed upon any graduate -- to spend a year working for the greatest Supreme Court Justice since John Jay, and of course, he accepted. Would there have been a student at Harvard who wouldn't have?

Jacoby then repeats G. Edward's White's spurious theory that because Hiss deliberately violated the long-standing rule of Justice Holmes by marrying Priscilla during his term as secretary, he was establishing a pattern of deception that would repeat itself later in life. This is too complex an issue to go into deeply here (it is covered thoroughly in this author's review of White's book) but a careful examination of the circumstances surrounding Hiss's marriages shows that White misstates a number of salient facts to make his point.

One small point, though. White and Jacoby both choose to overlook the essential decency of Hiss's actions in marrying the woman he loves. White also drew negative psychological connotations in Hiss's successful efforts to convince the elderly justice who had just lost his wife, that he might enjoy being read to. Hiss, and a succession of secretaries and former secretaries (including both Hisses) continued to do so to Holmes's great pleasure for the rest of his life. Now, one could look at both those incidents as indications of deceit -- or see them as the actions of honorable and decent human being. The choice, one could argue, says more about the person doing the choosing than it does about Hiss.

The fact is that while Jacoby tries to portray Hiss as a kind of Sammy Glick, there's nothing in the record (unlike Chambers's) showing that he ever misused anyone else to achieve his goals. Jacoby brings up Hiss's work with the International Juridical Association, a legal group that aided poor farmers suffering during the Great Depression that was later included on the Attorney General's list of subversive organizations. While she correctly notes that the IJA was a popular front organization with both communist and non-communist members, one wonders why she felt the need to mention it at all, knowing his membership signified nothing about allegations that he was a member of the Communist Party. And if he didn't become a communist or socialist in the early 1930s as she appears to acknowledge, when did he?

This, too, is a question that she fails to ask. Instead, Jacoby falls back on guesswork, writing that "it seems highly probable" that the Popular Front drew a "New Dealer like Hiss much closer to the Party." She says this without any basis and then goes even further by drawing a non sequitur of a parallel between the Comintern's endorsement of the Popular Front and Hiss's departure from the Nye Committee in 1935, again without producing any evidence of a connection between the two. In fact, the Communist Party's repeated criticism of the New Deal was no doubt a source of irritation to Hiss, who was very much a believer in the work of the Agricultural Adjustment Administration, which came under especially harsh criticism from both the Communist and Socialist parties.

Hiss's being so straight-laced (as opposed to Chambers) seems to offend Jacoby, but she never makes it clear why. She claims to find the clues to his guilt in his two books, "In the Court of Public Opinion," (1957) and "Recollections of a Life" (1988). Neither book contains an admission of guilt or a single provable lie. Instead she draws her inferences from what they don't say. Both, she asserts, are too dispassionate for her taste, so clearly Hiss is hiding something. Chambers' is more credible because in his autobiography "Witness," the man who saw himself as the reincarnation of Doestoyevski can't help but turn the inner recesses of his soul inside out, forgetting the fact (as Sam Tanenhaus, his biographer, does) that much of what he reveals has been shown to be a lie. You can start with page one. The snowstorm that Chambers says blew through Philadelphia on the day he was born in 1901? It was, in fact, a spring-like day.

While Jacoby is correct that Hiss doesn't open up a vein and bleed for his readers, Hiss goes through the trouble to get the story down right -- the story he was contracted to tell. But Jacoby exceeds White in trying to uncover the deceptions between the lines, as if the two were trying to one-up each other in a game of "Where's Waldo" (or in this case "Where's the Spy").

For example, she writes that Hiss must be a deceiver because when writing about an afternoon tea in law school at the home of Felix Frankfurter, he recounts how he failed to recognize a well-known quote by Lord Acton about the corrupting nature of power. According to Jacoby, anyone would have been familiar with Acton's dictum, so this becomes "one of the many passages in Hiss's emotionally cool memoirs that make [Jacoby] doubt the veracity of much of his story." Aside from her questionable logic, could it be that Hiss included the story about Acton's dictum in his memoir because he too understood that it was something he should have known?

She also sees a negative in that Hiss supposedly "avoided the consequences of his actions," but if he didn't commit any crime, why should he have suffered any consequences (not to mention the fact that he served forty-forty months in a federal penitentiary, which is a pretty good consequence for what he was charged with)? It's also troubling to her that in "Recollections" Hiss is not passionate in his discussion of the old left. Could the reason be that, unlike the others she cites -- namely Irving Kristol and Irving Howe -- Hiss was not a member of the old left?

Apparently, in an interview with David Remnick, Hiss didn't condemn Stalin enough to suit her, ignoring the fact that it was Remnick who wrote the story and chose the quote and how much of it to use. Jacoby should rest assured that in private conversations with this writer Hiss was well-aware of Stalin's actions during the 1930s and did not excuse them. Nor was he afraid to place Stalin and his crimes in their historical context.

She also says the interview with Remnick also reveals Hiss's manipulative side, because he insisted on buying his own lunch (note to self: from now on, always let the other person pick up the check, lest I be called a communist). The guess here is that this goes back to Hiss's final interview with Allen Weinstein, when Weinstein informed Hiss his book "Perjury" would state that Hiss was guilty. As they parted, Hiss refused to shake Weinstein's hand. It's only a hunch, but it's possible Hiss wanted to pay his own tab because he had the same suspicions about Remnick, and, judging by Remnick's article, he would have been right.

Finally, there's Hiss's comment to Remnick about Irving Howe, which in her mind, is "the observation most indicative of a Communist background." This is Jacoby's great epiphany, the very basis of her argument that Hiss was guilty. It occurs with Hiss's angry response to Remnick about Irving Howe's statement that Hiss was guilty. In Jacoby's view, the response of a non-Communist would have been to show not anger, but rather "a superior posture of tolerance."

There you have it -- not the Pumpkin Papers, the Baltimore documents, the Venona releases or the testimony of Whittaker Chambers. It was an 82-year-old man's anger toward a person who called him a liar and a traitor that does him in.

And while we're on the subject – why is the lack of emotion (in Hiss's memoir) a sign of guilt if a burst of emotion (in the Remnick interview) can also be pointed to a sign of guilt?

The book on the Hiss case that Jacoby finds most credible is Weinstein's "Perjury." That claim brings to mind the oft-repeated aphorism of the late Hiss case expert, William A. Reuben, who never failed to warn, "Weinstein is very credible until you read the transcripts" -- something Jacoby has chosen not to do.

Jacoby claims that because Hiss was so careful to manipulate his image, he would never have spoken to Weinstein if he didn't think Weinstein's research would support his claim of research. That's only half true. During the years I knew and worked with him, Alger pretty much talked to anybody who called or came through the door, and in those years there were many who did so. Alger never set any pre-conditions for his time. The defense files that sat behind my desk were also open to any serious researcher. What is true is that Alger did think Weinstein's research would show he was innocent, but not because he had any special faith in Weinstein but, rather because, he always believed that anyone who took on an impartial investigation of the evidence would come to that conclusion.

Weinstein did approach Hiss (and his wife, from whom Hiss was then separated), claiming to be objective, even sympathetic. Weinstein's papers, however, which he made available thirty years after he promised to do so, can be studied at the Hoover Institution at Stanford, and they belie that claim of impartiality. In fact, Weinstein claimed in "Perjury" (contrary to what Jacoby writes) that it was Hiss's defense files, not the FBI documents which proved Hiss was lying. This writer challenges anyone to travel to both coasts and read both sets of files (the defense files are at Harvard) and decide for themselves which was the more earnest and honest investigation of the truth. [8]

Jacoby also scoffs at Hiss's belief that Weinstein was trying to further his career in finding Hiss guilty, but history has proved him correct. "Perjury" opened the door for a job with the Reagan administration in 1982. From there, he became president of The Center for Democracy, a group that has been accused of being a CIA front for destablizing leftwing democracies around the globe. In 2005, he was appointed the Archivist of the United States and served in the post for four years until stepping down recently for health reasons.

She also suggests that the positive reception for Weinstein's book (led by its serialization in Time magazine, Whittaker Chambers's former employer) forced the "other side to fight a guerilla war with vastly inferior resources." This suggests, falsely, that Hiss had superior resources before "Perjury" was published in 1978. While writing "Perjury," Weinstein could fall back on his full-time job as a professor at Smith College, and the ACLU was carrying on his legal fight. Hiss, prior to Weinstein's book publication, was sorting through some 40,000 pages of newly released government documents with a staff that consisted of a law student working part time, a recent college graduate, a retired New York City school teacher and an elderly homemaker. True, Hiss had the veteran civil liberties attorney, Victor Rabinowitz, working on his behalf, but he had to support the legal effort by traveling around the country, speaking wherever he could. This did not change significantly following Weinstin's book. Jacoby refers to Hiss's "campaign" for vindication. There never was any campaign. When a legal avenue opened up to him to pursue the possibility of overturning the verdict, he took it. When a reporter called seeking a story, Hiss spoke to him. Hiss never hired a press agent.

She adds that with the advent of the 1980s, "The conservative turn of American politics in the '80s did not further erode Hiss's support among those who had remained convinced of his innocence." Why would it? Nor did Gorbachev's achievements, she writes, but, again, what could be connection between the two? Can one imagine anyone with knowledge of the case, reading a newspaper account of glasnost, and thinking as a result that Alger Hiss must have been innocent -- or guilty?

With all her scrutiny of Hiss's story, one would think Whittaker Chambers's account would deserve the same careful attention. Time and again, however, she merely accepts Chambers' word as it appears in Witness, (or in Sam Tanenhaus's biography, which came under harsh criticism itself from Professor David Levin in The Sewanee Review for his reluctance to check into Chambers' story).

Even Chambers's most absurd assertions are given the benefit of the doubt. She dismisses questions about Chambers' account of the so-called Ware Group [9] as coming from "many of Hiss's defenders from the sixties" who voiced "a consistent theme that Chambers had never been a Soviet spy -- that his account of his secret life as an agent was as delusional as his claim of having been a close friend of Alger Hiss."

There's a lot in those couple of sentences to digest. To begin, questions about whether Chambers had been a spy were first raised in the 1940s -- by the FBI. After their first interview with Chambers in 1942, an agent wrote, "…most of his information is either history, hypothesis or deduction."

Questions were also raised in the 1950s. For example, Lee Pressman was an acknowledged member of the Ware group. He told HUAC in August 1950 that Chambers' account of the group was by and large fictitious. John Abt, another admitted member of the group, said the same thing in his 1993 memoir, "Advocate and Activist." The FBI files are replete with interviews from others, many of whom had little or no connection to Hiss, that cast doubt on Chambers' story.

It's also worth noting that not a single document or a copy of a document Chambers claimed to have taken for transmission to the Soviet Union has ever shown up in Soviet archives.

She writes that Chambers went to see A. A. Berle because of his outrage over the Soviet-German pact of 1939. Even his friend Isaac Don Levine disputed that story. After his break with the Communist Party, Chambers began peddling a manuscript about his alleged underground life and took it to Levine, who was then a writer and editor with well-known anti-Stalinist views. Levine thought the book needed to be more hard-hitting and that its chances might get a boost if Chambers spoke to someone in the Roosevelt Administration. It was Levine who arranged the meeting with Berle after Roosevelt expressed no interest in getting together with Chambers, and the arrangements were in play long before the pact was signed.

As for dismissing doubts about Chambers' story as only emanating from Hiss's defenders in the 1960s, let's just say that if Hiss's defenders in the 1960s did raise these questions, does that mean per se that there was no basis for their doubts? Let's take one example. In 1967, Meyer Zeligs published "Friendship and Fratricide," his psychobiography of Hiss and Chambers. In it he suggested that, based on his analysis of Chambers's writings and interviews done by the defense, that Chambers may have been gay. Writing in The New York Times, reviewer Meyer Schapiro (an old friend of Chambers) responded with outrage at what he considered to be a slur, but we now know from Chambers' own confession to the FBI, released in the 1970s, that Zeligs' was correct.

Jacoby seems hesitant to question even the wildest aspects of Chambers' story. For example, she says that Chambers's abrupt departure from Williams College before he took a single freshman class was the result of claustrophobia, not the strange claim that he had seen "a great light," as reported by the FBI. She fails to even acknowledge the testimony of Chambers's roommate, who turned over to the dean the letter Chambers had written and left behind about his sudden religious conversion to the dean. Was it claustrophobia or an indication that Chambers was already veering toward fantasy.

In a similar vein, Jacoby writes that Chambers, in her words, was "some sort of spy" because he asked Diana Trilling to be a mail drop. Chambers probably did make that request (he did the same with a former classmate, David Zablodowsky). Given Chambers's history, though, that's no proof that he was actually engaged in espionage. It just could have been more of his games.

Jacoby much prefers to trust the questionable evidence seeping from the mountains of Soviet files instead of paying more careful attention to the issues surrounding Chambers's character and the evidence produced by both the FBI and the defense. The few times that she does wonder about the allegations against Hiss, she seems to ignore the implications of her own doubts. For example, she questions whether Chambers was telling the truth when he said Hiss was his best friend in the Communist Party. If he was lying about that, doesn't that raise question his other allegations? And isn't that why publishers assign intellectuals to write these kinds of books, to ask these kinds of questions?

Footnotes

1. In this case, she is confusing the "Baltimore documents" and the "Pumpkin Papers." On November 17, Chambers in a court deposition, handed over copies of government documents he said had been given to him by Alger Hiss and allegedly typed on Hiss's typewriter. On December 2 when Chambers handed over to HUAC investigators reels of 35mm film that he said contained pictures of government documents given to him for transmission to the Soviet Union.

2. His response is part of a written collection of oral histories available to anyone who asks.

3. At the height of the Cold War, the National Security Agency decoded Soviet intelligence messages transmitted by telegraphic cable to and from Moscow during World War II. Those who for years have supported Whittaker Chambers' charges think that a Soviet spy codenamed "ALES" in one Venona cable, was Alger Hiss.

4. This was only a guess, fashioned shortly after Hiss's conviction. In fact, FBI documents released in the 1970s show that in 1952 the FBI was still conducting an investigation to determine whether the information contained in the Venona telegrams could have been true. What they were told by those who were in Yalta with Hiss, was that the allegations were doubtful.

5. Although if they were as small as the author says they are, why do books such as they continue to be published, and why, as of this writing, has a small academic Web site such as ours, received more than 170,000 hits?

6. The points up one of Chambers' many lies about Hiss, which seem to have had no impact on Jacoby's thinking. Chambers said the Hisses placed Tim Hobson in a series of less expensive private schools and donated the difference to the Communist Party. Thayer Hobson, Tim’s father is quoted as saying in Tony Hiss's book, "Laughing Last," "I knew the son-of-a-bitch was lying when I heard that one."

7. He cites Tony Hiss’s contemptuous description of “Witness” as a “non-fiction” novel.

8. This author had a confrontation with Weinstein, in which Weinsten, who was then basking in the first positive reviews of "Perjury," came off poorly. It occurred at a talk Weinstein gave in New York. This is only worth raising because it points to the kind of weakness in Weinstein's technique that Jacoby either ignores or is unaware of. Weinstein had written in "Perjury" that an FBI interview with a pediatrician helped show that the Hisses were lying about their relationship with the Chamberses. I happened to have that same document and showed no such thing. I handed it to Weinstein following the meeting while he was speaking with a group of supporters, and he refused to accept it on the grounds that I may have doctored it. He said he would find his own copy of it and would correct the mistake if there was one in the next edition of "Perjury." He never did.

9. This was an allegedly secret group of New Deal officials who were also Communist Party members. Chambers alleged that both Hiss and his brother, Donald, were members of the group.

 
 

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